Tuesday, June 4, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 21: The Empress Dowager Cixi and the Qing dynasty’s closing years (1861-1908)

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff examines the Empress Dowager who ruled China for nearly the last fifty years of the Qing dynasty's ultimate decline.

After the feeble Xianfeng emperor died age 30 in 1861, China would be ruled (officially) by three more emperors ending with the Qing dynasty’s collapse.

However none of the three ever wielded real power since all throughout China was actually ruled by Xianfeng’s widowed concubine… who was also mother of the heir to the throne.

It was no accident that the Empress Dowager Cixi gained and held onto power for 47 years. She used considerable ambition, intelligence, cunning, and ruthlessness to secure her position as supreme ruler. She also skillfully manipulated the circumstances and often resorted to illegality to hold it.

She was also very bad for China, something we’ll get to in a moment, and it’s no accident that the final decline of the Qing dynasty coincided with her reign.

But first let’s get the question of her name out of the way.

“Cixi” is one of only a handful of unintuitive pinyin pronunciations and a rare case where the old Wade-Giles romanization system is more accurate than pinyin. 

In Wade-Giles, her name is spelled “Tzu Hsi,” a better match.

Either way, the pronunciation is “tsuh shee” because the letters “ci” in pinyin are pronounced “tsuh” and “xi” is pronounced like the current CCP president, Xi Jinping; or “shee.”

Cixi was born a lesser noblewoman from a minor Manchu clan in 1835. Her first lucky break was an imperial order: report to the Forbidden City as a candidate in the selection process for the Xianfeng emperor’s empress and concubines.

The “matching” was an arranged marriage process, with the “arrangers” being court astrologers who used the stars and other propitious signs to make their selections.

Cixi didn’t fare too well, selected only concubine of the fifth rank, far below the empress and several levels of upper concubines. Her younger sister fared worse, selected as a concubine for one of the Xianfeng emperor’s half-brothers.

Even at an early age, observers noted that Cixi was highly intelligent with a strong will and ambition, and it didn’t take long before the emperor was calling on her evening company repeatedly (recorded in the book of concubine “visits” that matched subsequent pregnancies with likely dates of conception). 

Although it has never been proven, rumors swirled within the Forbidden City that Cixi bribed palace eunuchs to mention her favorably to the emperor.

However what is definitely known is the emperor enjoyed Cixi’s company since, unlike the empress and other concubines, she could converse fluently with him about politics, foreign affairs, and economics after their intimate activities were over.

Then Cixi’s really big break came. She gave birth to the emperor's first son which instantly elevated her status. Being mother of the heir to the throne, Cixi was now outranked only by the empress herself who had little head for politics and affairs of state.

During the Taiping Rebellion Xianfeng fled the Forbidden City to his autumn hunting resort where he fell into depression and drank himself to death. Cixi brought Xianfeng’s young son to his deathbed and made sure he proclaimed the boy next emperor. She had also long been plotting with high-ranking Qing officials, building a coalition of allies within the imperial court.

With the emperor now dead, Cixi left the lengthy funeral rituals a few days early, returning to the Forbidden City while the highest ranking regents completed the ceremony. Several days later when the officials entered Beijing they were surprised to learn Cixi and her allies had plotted a coup, fabricating trumped up accusations of treason leading to several of their executions.

She then declared her five-year old son the new Tongzhi emperor, but as he was too young to rule she conveniently appointed herself and Xianfeng’s widowed empress as co-regents. Of course the widowed empress was completely in over her head with affairs of state and deferred to her “co-regent,” an outcome Cixi had undoubtedly plotted from the beginning.

As the Tongzhi emperor entered his teens he gained a reputation for debauchery, drink, and visiting brothels. There were even rumors of opium use. He contracted smallpox at age 23 and died before producing an heir. 

Again, unconfirmed rumors swirled that Cixi had introduced her own son to the hedonistic lifestyle and encouraged his indulgence in the hope that he would die before having a son of his own. A male heir would have transferred power away from Cixi in favor of the new boy emperor’s mother.

And so Cixi continued with a pattern that would repeat itself to the end of her life: devising ways to strip young male emperors of power before they could produce heirs and replace them with another powerless boy emperor.

In 1875 Cixi selected her nephew (her younger sister’s son) as the Guangxu emperor, an illegal act itself that defied centuries of Qing tradition, but it kept real power in her hands.

Guangxu neither adopted hedonism nor contracted smallpox and once he came of age attempted to exert imperial power with a massive modernization/reform movement. Cixi staunchly opposed the reform movement but Guangxu made things easy for her, for the young emperor was actually quite naïve in trying to change all of China in 100 days which made him many enemies in the Qing government.

Once she had secured enough opposition to the reforms Cixi accused the young emperor of treason, staged a coup, and had him placed under house arrest where he remained until the end of his short life.

In her final years Cixi, realizing her own mortality was near, elevated another boy to emperor in 1908, the three year old Puyi who was made famous by the 1987 movie “The Last Emperor.” The Guangxu emperor died the night before Puyi was named successor and Cixi died the next day.

It’s no coincidence that Guangxu died right before Cixi. The reported symptoms, which included violent vomiting spells and blue skin color, were consistent with poisoning. A 21st century forensic study of his remains found arsenic levels 2,000 times higher than normal in his body.

Cixi had plenty of motive to order Guangxu's murder, for when she died he would finally be free from house arrest, assume the throne again, and carry out the ambitious reforms that she had so strongly opposed. Poisoning him right before she died guaranteed he wouldn’t get the chance.


On policy, Cixi was generally horrible for China. A staunch reactionary who viewed all foreigners as inferior and who wished to expel as many from China as possible, Cixi rejected most attempts to modernize the country, supremely confident in her belief that the inherent superiority of Manchu/Chinese culture alone could overcome all economic and military challenges posed by the foreign powers.

Cixi did have a few foresighted advisers who, through years of persistent but careful advice, convinced her to adopt a few modest reforms (the most famous being the “Self Strengthening Movement”), but she always cut them short of achieving their final goals, keeping China hopelessly behind the outside world.

Perhaps the most famous example was government funds allocated for modernizing the military. Cixi, as corrupt as she was cunning, diverted a great deal of the money to her Summer Palace resort where she built a giant “marble boat,” actually a pavilion made of wood painted to look like marble, but with fancy glass and underwater contraptions that cost a small fortune. The “boat,” which didn’t really float, was built to entertain guests and throw lavish parties, depriving the real navy of badly needed funds.

Ironically just one year later the Qing Navy was routed by the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Yalu River (actually in the Sea of Japan at the mouth of the river). After several key land defeats Qing China was forced to cede yet more territory at the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), this time to Japan: the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and the Liaodong peninsula in Manchuria, although France, Germany, and Russia intervened to reverse the ceding of Liaodong.

Japan would go on to colonize and administer Korea and Taiwan until the end of World War II.

And it wasn’t just Japan that continued carving up China during Cixi’s reign. Germany got in on the action and wrestled away the peninsular province of Shandong which contains the capital city of Qingdao.

On a side note Qingdao, when romanized using Wade-Giles, is also spelled “Tsingtao” which might look familiar to some CO beer enthusiasts.

When the Germans occupied Shandong they noticed there were no beer brewing facilities around so, being Germans, they quickly built their own in the provincial capital of Qingdao: the same Tsingtao beer that some CO readers might drink today. More than a century later Tsingtao is a publicly traded company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange whose major shareowners include, ironically enough, Japanese-owned Asahi Breweries, the Chinese government, and for a while Anheuser-Busch.

France also fought a brief war with China in the 1880’s over disputed territory in Vietnam. Although victory was slower in coming, France was finally awarded the territory which ultimately led to its expansion and complete colonization of Vietnam.

All throughout Cixi’s years in power China fell further and further behind the West, Russia, and Japan while she stymied her advisers’ efforts to modernize the country. China was slowly carved up by foreign powers which grabbed more and more of its territory, mostly on its periphery.

Historians have made some comparisons between Cixi’s reign and that of Queen Victoria: two female monarchs in an age where women rarely wielded power, both sovereigns of major world powers. Victoria sat on the throne from 1837 to 1901 (63 years) and Cixi from 1861 to 1908 (47 years).

But that’s about where the similarities end. 

Victoria deferred to representative parliamentary government which in turn embraced global trade, mass industrialization, new technologies, and forged the British Empire into a global hegemon. Cixi held singular power and with it tried to close China off from the world, overseeing the accelerating decline of what was once a great power.

In the next chapter we’ll discuss the final end of the Qing dynasty, right after the notorious Boxer Rebellion.

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